Searching for Irish Immigrants Before 1790

Irish Immigrant Ancestors: Who, What, When, Where and Why?

Review of my previous post:  I answered the question of who the mostly non-Irish of the “Irish” immigrants were. I also painted a picture of how they were “settled in”.   

Name Searches

            Determining a particular destination of a Collins, Murphy, or O’Neill in America before 1790 is difficult.  As a rule, Catholic Irish immigrants of the later 1700’s lacked the resources allowing them to immediately purchase land, so the first place to search would be any location where a large number of low-skilled laborers were needed. 

Irish Protestants from Ulster were far more likely than Catholics to have the resources necessary for farm ownership. Protestants primarily landed in Boston and later in Philadelphia and New York, but they also stayed near the cities.

In Michael O’Brien’s list of Christenings in his account of the “Extracts from the Parish Register of Christ Church” in Middlesex County, VA, the parishioners were identified as Irish from Ireland, not Barbados, and their church was identified as Episcopalian. The time period is 1663 – 1783. The surnames of the parents were consistently from about twenty-seven families until 1735. Then, a new batch of surnames of about eight families began to surface. Surely, some of the children previously born in 1670 were later having babies in 1700. If they were girls, they would have new surnames, but the new names didn’t necessarily mean a new influx of immigrant Irish families.[i] That is, names would have come from young single men who, after the Revolution, took immigrant trails and moved on to settlements away from their ports of entry and they would no longer be counted in local records of their parents. It was the next generation who were having families and the fathers may have been from other churches or townships from northern regions.  A significant number of the first American-born Irish had their own families during this period.

Side NoteWhen I first started searching through census records, I would think I had found the individual or family I was seeking.  However, I always made note of given names for all the persons in a family and compared their names and dates of birth with similarly-named families from other places. For example, I would find in a Lexington, KY census in which the father of children who were all born in Lexington in the 1770’s had a father born in New York. I would then search for the other children (siblings) of the New York family to discover that I possibly had the wrong family.  Invariably, I looked for a son named after his father, a grandfather or, perhaps a sibling of the father—if I could find one. Women seemed to carry the given names of their mothers or aunts. Sometimes, women used their family’s surname as a middle name for their children, boy or girl—especially if their fathers had been doctors, lawyers, or men of accomplishments or notoriety. I have been able to make family trees by searching like-named combinations from several places or, at least like surnames within the same township, post office, or county. By spending time “gathering up” someone else’s family, I have learned who my family is not, thus avoiding an error.

However, I later learned the following tips than blew away some of my assumptions.

Tips regarding the traditions or conventions in Irish given names:

  • In birth order, boys were usually named after paternal grandfather, then maternal grandfather, father, then uncles.
  • Girls were often named in the same manner as boys, except, of course, they carried female names of their mother’s mother, father’s mother, mother, then aunts.
  • Some “middle names” are often not really middle names. They are a way to indicate who the child was the son of. For example: if the name was James Charles Scott, it meant that James was the son of Charles Scott. “Charles,” however, would not always appear in a baptism record.  I also discovered that in later naming (1800’s on) women did use their surname as their children’s middle name.  My Aunt Laura was very proud of her surname Scott, and did not want it to get lost over time, so her sons were named William Scott Day and James Scott Day.  This is extremely handy when a surname pops up as the middle names of all a couple’s children. The mother’s surname might be unknown until you see that all the children had the same middle name that turned out to be their mother’s surname.

Side Note: My aunt had gone back to Pennsylvania in the 1950’s to join the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), the organization that her cousin Caroline Lavinia Scott Harrison (first lady) had helped to found. The DAR would not accept her documents. She found the ladies so rude and “exclusive” that she happily came home without her membership. Of course, DNA would have settled the argument. It was soon after that we learned the DAR would not accept ancestors of Black Revolutionary soldiers. Caroline Harrison would have been very upset.  Daughter of an outspoken abolitionist trying to elevate public opinion about former slaves, she often published her Whitehouse news in the African American newspaper first.  That included notice of her father’s death that occurred in the Whitehouse. She had unsuccessfully worked for the Black Mens vote.

  • Other tradition that interested me from very early ancestors, was the “reuse” of given names when a child died in infancy.  Families kept applying the name until one of them survived.
  • Unfortunately, unbaptized Catholic infants who died or were stillborn the 1600 and 1700’s could not be buried in Catholic cemeteries due to the “Limbo” doctrine (which no longer exists). They were buried in “unconsecrated ground” with criminals, committers of suicides, the insane or others who had “lost” their souls and were not pure enough for “consecrated” ground.  My great grandfather, Joseph Quigley (from Mary Quigley’s Da) was buried under those conditions. I located his grave but could not get to it due to flooding and poison oak.

The process of using the same given names over and over makes the finding of family much easier. The family from my book, Mary Quigley’s Da, had children named Charles, James and Mary, the names of the children in my family. My Irish grandmother was Mary, and her father’s brothers were Charles and James. I fought my way through “spaghetti” named Mary, Ellen, Margaret, James, Charles, Michael, Joseph, Frances, and Edward for some time. However, without those common names, I probably would not have found the single record for which I searched a very long time—a ship manifest that met the Director of Irish Archives’ approval.

Side NoteA second cousin of mine had the middle name Witherspoon.  He was an abolitionist, minister, doctor, lecturer at several universities and the father of Caroline Lavinia Scott. My 3rd cousin Caroline was, like myself, a music teacher, but she was the wife of Benjamin Harrison, 23rd President of the United States. As mentioned, he died in the Whitehouse and was a “national” figure. I searched for quite a few years to find Witherspoons in the family.  It wasn’t until this year, when a book came out on the Scottish Enlightenment How the Scots Invented the Modern World, by Arthur Herman, that I learned that the moderate-voiced Reverend Witherspoon of Scotland had come to Bucks County to preach at Neshaminy and other Presbyterian locations. I have seen many older names containing Jefferson, Lincoln, Washington, Stonewall, Jackson, etc. It gave a baby “gravitas”.

Migration Patterns – The Roads Traveled

Follow a transportation trail to discover what’s on it.

            When researching a migration pattern of an ancestor, it helps to have a history of roads. I wondered how Irish immigrants ended up in Kansas from New York or Philadelphia when there were no cars, trains, planes and they had no money to speak of.  What roads were there? How long would it have taken them to walk or travel by horse and cart? How could they afford a horse, let alone more than one horse to pull a wagon full of family? What would they have eaten? They could not have crossed the Ohio, Mississippi, and Missouri Rivers!  Where might they have stopped along the way to gather the resources necessary to continue toward their destinations?  The Irish were people who had been eating grass and dropping dead like flies before they arrived. How in the world did they go from point a to point z after their arrival (from starving to thriving)?

In my book, Mary Quigley’s Da, the Quigley family arrived in New York in 1849, but they weren’t in any record in Kansas City or Independence, Missouri until 1852. To put the puzzles together for either that family or my 1722 Scott family from Ireland, I had to start learning what I didn’t know about how or where people traveled in a wilderness.

Both groups generally followed the same routes (with thousands of other families) both before and after the Westward Movement.  Once the Revolution had been fought and the Northwest Territories were “opened,” everyone was on the move. That happened from the late 1760’s on. Check out settlement dates. For example, Detroit was settled in 1701, but Chicago, only 281 miles away, was settled in 1829. People went south before they went too far west. West wasn’t “us” yet.

The number of roads between 1600 and 1776 was limited.  Most trails were made by animals and followed by Native Americans and fur traders.  Early immigrants who wanted space for wagons boldly and bravely created it as they went. 

A document I found for a Robert Scott who had purchased land in Virginia around 1722, was a request of him by the local council to build a road and a bridge for people to gain access past his property. Developers are still required to “foot the bill” for some public access, but it wasn’t until there were formats for collecting taxes in municipalities that trails were widened, and bridges built by governments to accommodate the passage of wagons.  This was not usual until after 1776 and into the early 1800’s.

Once the colonies were established, links grew between them, all the way along the coast from the New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts colonies to Charleston and southward. Once commerce began along this road, it was referred to as the “King’s Highway”. It was Charles II who had ordered construction along this route around 1673.  In Pennsylvania, the highway became wide enough for wagons to pass, and the King’s Highway began to sprout links inland, not just along the coastline.[ii]

In the 1700 – 1800’s most people with a wagon followed:

  • The Wilderness Road – A path leading to Kentucky that was established by Daniel Boone. It followed the Great Valley of Pennsylvania down through the Cumberland Gap, which is located on the Virginia and Tennessee border about 4,000 feet east of the Kentucky border. I believe that this is also referred to as the Wagon Road.  A new and more direct route, the Tollunteeskee’s Trail, originally hacked out by a native by that name, was widened by immigrants.  It was located on the plateau above and west of the Cumberland valley, known for its roughness, and started in Virginia and ended in many trails starting in Knoxville.[iii] One group of Scots-Irish who negotiated this trail were Andrew Jackson, a prosecutor before coming president; Judge John McNairy; and the widow of Revolutionary War General William Davidson—all Scots. The widow’s children were with her.
  • Early animal> Native American> fur trader> rough, early immigrant trails across Pennsylvania and into Virginia and points south, east or north (toward the Great Lakes).

My Scott family moved in several directions from Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Other than New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware or New York, the first pioneer Scotts headed west and traversed the width of Pennsylvania into Beaver and Washington Counties in Pennsylvania and Hancock and Brooke Counties in West Virginia, where Scots-Irish families were already settled. Most settled into mining towns. Scotts headed that way to open schools, teach, and to be ministers and newspaper editors. Their trail was likely used by natives and traders, but there were numerous early wagon trails in Pennsylvania, as there were already-settled northeastern and Atlantic coastal towns far beyond the original colonies.  

Cumberland Valley. Many families headed down the Great (Cumberland) Valley.  They moved from settlement to settlement along the leading edge of the frontier, seeking affordable land, then developing it, selling out, and purchasing new land farther down the valley to develop.

Clarke’s Expedition. The settlements beyond Pennsylvania were fairly sparse until the 1770’s when Colonel Clarke was commissioned to form a secret expedition into Ohio country to “restore” lands lost in the Treaty of Paris or earlier to the English. It proved to be and was likely intended to be an assault against the Shawnee.

Two hundred men were chosen for their range of “skills” (such as engineering, medicine, law, governance), as well as attributes that I see in my family: resolute fortitude, stubborn endurance, and persistent valor.  (These are our ancestors who had engaged in hand-to-paw combat with bears., etc.) Clarke found all two hundred of these men from among the Scotch-Irish in the Virginia valley (including western Pennsylvania).  They were already perched on the edge of the frontier, and many seem to have gotten there on their own.

James Hamilton, governor of Pennsylvania was taken on the trip. All the forts (held by British troops) were taken, and the Native Americans “subdued” by the two hundred Celts. The land of the Northwest Territory was returned to the Revolution victors who immediately occupied it.  My impression is that they just ran “roughshod” across the territory.[iv]

Revolution veterans’ land gifts. By 1800, there were many settlements along the border of Ohio, and into the interior, including Dayton, Chillicothe, Zanesville and Cincinnati (founded in 1788). Also, these cities were much more diverse and balanced. Chillicothe became the territorial capitol. Originally, the land opportunities for the wealthy were too good to pass up. Many, like my family, were descendants of Revolutionary officers who inherited great amounts of frontier land gifted to their predecessors by the government in repayment for winning the nation.

The land gifts also caused the western edges of the frontier to move further west quickly.  At these edges is where immigrants could find opportunities for labor, commerce, and settlement. They shifted each time the townships were added to each Census—State or Federal.  The potential farmland was immense.

Side Note: Chillicothe was an “enlightened” and popular city. It is where Madison and Eston Hemings, sons of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings (Jefferson’s slave woman he inherited from his deceased wife’s family) settled after their mother died in Virginia in 1835.[v] My third great grandfather, a doctor with huge amounts of land settled there. My second cousin, Lucy Ware (surname of her father’s mother) Webb, wife of President Rutherford B. Hayes was raised there. Her uncle, the Rev. Dr. John Witherspoon Scott, father of Caroline Lavinia Scott, the wife of President Benjamin Harrison and founder of a women’s college, had a station in the Underground Railroad north of Chillicothe, in Mount Pleasant.  Lucy’s little house (now a museum) was relocated to the same neighborhood where Madison and Eston possibly lived in relative “white anonymity” before departing to Wisconsin.  In Wisconsin, they changed their history and names to Jefferson and did not reveal their ethnicity so they could live in a white world where they could send their children to school, hold office, vote and have lives worthy of their intellect and rightfully-earned citizenship. (How demeaning that would be for me!)

  • The National Road – Starting in Maryland (1811), it led to Washington D.C. and eventually connected to Indiana where the eastern section had already started. When finished, the federally-funded section ran from Vandalia, IL through Terre Houte and Indianapolis in Indiana; Springfield, Columbus, and Zanesville in Ohio; Wheeling in West Virginia; then Uniontown and Cumberland in Pennsylvania; and into Baltimore, Maryland. The links to St. Louis, Missouri (1820) and into Washington D.C. were paid for by private funds. Due to the panic of 1837, construction from Vandalia to St. Louis and Jefferson City stopped—leaving the official end of the road in Vandalia, IL. By 1840, pioneers had run large wagons and herds of cattle over it, pushing it on to meet the developing pioneer trails west. By 1870, the railroad took its place.[[vi]]
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Road#media/File:National_road_map.png
  • The Pennsylvania Canals – Completed in 1825, the Erie and other canals led from New York through Pennsylvania and into the Great Lakes. The Allegheny Portage Railroad was completed in 1835. The line started in Philadelphia and ended in Pittsburg. Going south from Pittsburg, people then used steamships down the Ohio River that connected to the Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri and further south to the Tennessee, Red and Arkansas Rivers.
This is part of the Allegheny Portage Railroad. The boats in the canal became railroad cars that were pull up six inclines over the Allegheny Mountains on the “Main Line.” Opened 1834, a passenger went by train, then by canal boat, by portage and canal over six inclines and, again, by canal boat from Philadelphia to Pittsburg. This is how many of the Potato Famine immigrants started their journeys west from New York or Philadelphia. The Catholic Church paid for stonemasons’ vouchers that included meals. Irish went to Cincinnati and as far as New Orleans to build churches, schools, public and government buildings, and laborers went to dig canals and ditches. I discovered that a cousin, Arabella Scott was the second wife of Sylvester Welch, engineer and designer of the Allegheny Portage Railroad.

Side Note: Our later (1849) Quigley families followed the PA canals route.  Our earlier Quigley families settled in New York from Nova Scotia, and one in North Dakota through Canada. The Scots-Irish had earlier followed what became the Wilderness Road across Pennsylvania.  When finding obstacles in searching your roots, don’t forget to make deductive judgements by leaving no stone unturned. Find out what most others did, then go there too. Even though information might not lead you in the right direction, you learn something.

  • The Oregon Trail – Leading from Kansas City from 1836 on (though it was initially used by fur traders on foot from 1811), the Oregon Trail connected to many of the following:
  • The Sante Fe Trail, the Old Spanish Trail, the Mormon Trail (from 1847), the California Trail (1841-1869) and the Southern Emigrant Trail, a system of trails across the desert Southwest leading from the Colorado River, Arizona to southern California, into Mexico.  (My husband and I hiked on many parts of the Oregon and the Emigrant Trails. It is still possible to see marks where sizeable wagons, pianos (something from my mother’s family legends), etc. were lowered over the mountain cliffs.)

For a map of Roads, Canals, and Rails in the 1800’s, if you are an educator, go to:                https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/early-transportation   Educators and private individuals must agree to the terms of the National Geographic materials use. They cannot be used in a commercial setting. The map is for use in geography or social studies, grades 5 – 12+.[vii]

Section of the original rails for the Allegheny Portage Railroad.  The first tracks were wood, but the addition of metal strips made this a safer and smoother ride, and easier to maintain.
These metal rails replaced the wood. Can you imagine racing down a mountain in a boat with rails? Though it looks fragile by today’s standards, the system was amazingly safe.
Model of a steam-powered locomotive engine used to pull the boat cars up the mountainside by cables.

Preview of my coming post: I will detail regional America and discuss the first U. S. Census in 1790, when it was finally decided that the country needed to know who and how many people lived here. The government could not collect taxes or provide services without the information. It will also feature a U.S. Map showing the settlement and expansion places and dates.


[i] O’Brien, Michael. Irish Settlers in America, Volume I. Excerpted from the Journal of the American Irish Historical Society: Baltimore, 1979, pp. 78-83.

[ii] The Colonial Roads. “Piedmont Trails: Genealogy and History in North Carolina and Beyond.” https://piedmonttrails.com/2019/11/28/first-major-route-of-the-colonies-the-kings-highway/  Accessed 01 April 2022.

[iii] SmithDRay’s Web Pages. “Trails, Historic: Tollunteeskee’s Trail” https://smithdray.tripod.com/home-index-0.html Accessed 05 April 2022.

[iv] West, J. Martin, Fort Ligonier Association. “George Rogers Clark and the Shawnee Expedition of 1780.” National Park History: Selected Papers from the 1991 and 1992 George Rogers Clark Trans-Appalachian Frontier History  Conferences.  http://npshistory.com/series/symposia/george_rogers_clark/1991-1992/sec1.htm. Accessed 22 April 2019, 10:30 p.m.

[v] Kerrison, PhD., Catherine. Jefferson’s Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America. Ballantine Books: New York, 2018.

[vi] Wikipedia. “Allegheny Portage Railroad.”  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegheny_Portage_Railroad  Accessed 25 April 2019, 10:30 a.m.

[vii] Roads, Canals and Rails in the 1800s: Map of transportation in the eastern U.S., Resource Library Map. Grades 5 – 12+, Subjects: Geography, Social Studies. National Geographic Headquarters, 1145 17th Street NW, Washington, DC 20036.  https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/early-transportation  Accessed 29 May 2022, 1:31 p.m.

Mary Jaffe

Mary Jaffe (neé Scott) dreamed of becoming a National Geographic journalist, but it was a dream unrealized--even though she spent her entire eighth grade summer sleeping outdoors along a river, in the woods with the bears, in a barn, in lightening storms, etc. to determine if she was made of the right stuff. Now, at age seventy-seven--after thirty-five years of teaching elementary, adolescent and adult incarcerated students; raising her family as a single mother; singing professional opera; and caring for her beloved terminally ill husband for more than a decade--she has turned to writing historical fiction.